In a bare, wood-floored rehearsal space in the Sammons Center for the Arts, director Mark Farr is advising two actors on the most effective way to rape Christina Vela. They are lean, muscular fellows in black leather pants and gigantic black Frankenstein platform shoes, but a tad timid about the scene in terms of what Farr wants to achieve. Vela waits patiently on all fours on the floor in her tight, black dancer's outfit, her voluminous bosom barely contained in her top's stretchy material. Rape has been depicted on the stage before, of course, usually with the intent to shock and help explain the devastating consequences of the act. But Farr is giving most unusual directions that befit the unique--and that adjective is an understatement--material this trio is rehearsing.
"GRRRRRR!!" Farr says, contorting his face into macho-gorilla spasms of comic hostile desire as his hips make thrusting movements toward Vela's behind. "We want to see you out there," he tells the attackers, who will be known in the show's program as "The Butt Boys." "Don't let Christie upstage you."
That's a tall order. When Our Endeavors presents the world premiere of I, Patti Diphusa, International Sex Symbol this weekend, these guys will contend not just with the indomitable eponymous character, who makes bored but cheery repartee to the audience as she's being slapped and violated (the rapists, intimidated by their "victim's" unflappability, apologize afterward) but with Vela herself, one of Dallas' most formidable theatrical talents. The beautiful, zaftig 32-year-old has played everything from an evil pimp grandmother (The Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother) to an abandoned wife who takes off across Texas after her husband (Shiner) to a profane and belittling spouse who withers while sitting alone during a party (Marie and Bruce). She's one of the few performers in town who works expertly in comedy and tragedy, the classical and the nontraditional, and moreover, often locates moments in a role where such elements cannot be separated, thus altering the intended tone of an entire play. Though she usually winds up commanding a stage even in supporting roles, her attitude as an actor belies this.
"As a performer, if you trust your director, you have to shut up and listen," Vela insists. "As a director, you have to have an ego, or the vision won't come across. Directors I utterly trust (such as Mark Farr) have been able to convince me I'm wrong when at first I don't think my character would do or say that. They can mark off the whole network of motivations within their vision. 'She does this because this will happen and then that will happen...'"
Farr brought her an anthology of magazine columns by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, who took one transsexual character from his early film Labyrinth of Desire and, beginning in 1983, created an almost mythic woman for the Spanish publication La Luna. Patti Diphusa is a sexually voracious and kindhearted porn star and nightclub habitué who revels in the permissive atmosphere that sprang up in Madrid after the release of Franco's fascist hold. The stage adaptation by Farr and actor John Flores (who is Vela's husband) is unabashedly a vehicle for Vela, who has never been able to abandon her own purely theatrical sexuality, even when playing blue-collar women in decidedly unsexy situations. In I, Patti Diphusa, no such thing exists. Every moment has erotic potential as Patti pursues a series of men and rhapsodizes later about her conquests.
"Someone said, 'She's a sex object who gazes back at you,'" Vela says. "Patti is one of those sexual icons who takes all the things that makes a woman soft and sexy and makes them powerful."
Vela researched biographies of old-time burlesque stars, watched the great female criminals of film noir, and explored Web sites dedicated to Russ Meyer's black-booted siren Tura Satana (as well as, accidentally, "some really nasty stuff") to get into Patti's mindset. When discussing the show's producer, Our Endeavors' co-founder Patti Kirkpatrick, Vela cheekily calls her "the person who's going to bail us out when vice comes." I, Patti Diphusa contains no nudity, but there's lots of simulated copulation onstage and, even more shocking, the temerity to view it all in a humorous and benevolent light. Vela insists that Kirkpatrick and the troupe were up-front with everyone who came in contact with the show, from the Trinity River Arts Center (the play's venue) to the rehearsal spaces at the Dallas Opera, where Vela and actor Mark O'Dell shot a mock porn film on video to open the production. But she thinks that the play is more explicit on paper than it will be received in the theater, and says Our Endeavors wants the audience to laugh, not be offended. Given the multiple compromising positions that she assumes during rehearsals, does the actor fear sudden embarrassment when she must recreate them in front of a live audience?
"I've never worried about being humiliated onstage," Vela says flatly. "I only worry about giving a bad performance."
Another world premiere currently running in the city is playwright-actor-performer David Goodwin's adaptation of Steven Grant's '80s comic book Whisper , about to play its second and last weekend as part of the Kitchen Dog Cabaret Series. The show shares more in common with Patti Diphusa than having unlikely source material for a stage production and a superhuman female lead who leaves a trail of exhausted men in her path. Goodwin developed the piece while working within the same writers group that includes Patti Diphusa 's director-adapter Mark Farr and co-writer John Flores. But Our Endeavors' heroine is glamorous, optimistic and utterly in control of her carnal destiny, even when men would have it otherwise. In the Kitchen Dog show, Alexis Devin (played by Samantha Montgomery with weary, tomboyish sincerity), is more of a sad Everywoman who, since a childhood spent in crutches, has had to constantly extricate herself from dire situations that have been imposed upon her. Karate is the discipline of choice to free her.
Last Thursday's opening night performance of Whisper climaxed with almost a half hour of SMU students in black ninja wrap punching, high-kicking, and wielding menacing weapons of rod and chain at Montgomery. You could see that a good deal of physical and emotional energy had been poured into the play, even if you didn't notice co-director Tina Parker nervously clasping her hands on the sidelines. While it's true that every once in a while I could sense an actor stepping into invisible floor marks of fight choreography with deliberate effort, the action went smoothly if a tad slowly inside the MAC's small black box space. Co-director Bill Lengfelder's movement students didn't interrupt the quite impressive pace that author Goodwin established and Parker re-created in the cast's utterly un-ironic exchanges. As soon as Alexis is plunged into an international heroin underworld, a series of performances bursts into bright comic book colors: a very goofy and entertaining Quynh Tran as a long-haired, sunglassed Japanese drug lord; Max Hartman as an S&M-loving agent working for we're-not-sure-which-agency who attempts to use and then erase Alexis to get to the heroin ring leader; and Joe Steakley as a blond, horn-rimmed geek whose unrequited love of Alexis is manipulated to near-fatal ends. Parker has helped her actors shape an explanatory/exclamatory style of performance that is lifted from the panels of a comic book yet without the camp exaggeration that usually goes with three-dimensional versions of the genre. They betray little self-awareness and absolutely no sense that the material they're delivering is silly or simplistic, "like a comic book," as their dialogue underscores with heavy black marker whatever's happening in the scene. Couple this with an exquisite use of shadow and color--lit panels by designers Aaron Hoard and Eric Cope that look superior to many of the Dog's mainstage shows--and you wish that the troupe had sufficient resources to program this simply but smartly executed mini-adventure as part of their subscription season. If mounted for more than just two weeks, expanding word-of-mouth ripples would surely ensnare a variety of persons who otherwise would never set foot inside a theater.
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